A tenant who has been injured by carbon monoxide poisoning may be able to bring a legal claim against his or her landlord in some instances. Whether the landlord is liable will depend on standard landlord tenant law and/or state statutes regulating carbon monoxide devices. In this article, we'll discuss both of these issues in-depth.
General Landlord-Tenant Laws
Before the twentieth century, landlords were not considered responsible for the condition of the property once it was rented out, unless they agreed to be responsible. That extreme position has been modified in the modern era, but the degree to which it has been modified does vary from state to state.
It is generally still the law that the landlord is responsible only for conditions in common areas and other premisesover which he or she has control. The tenant, in turn, is responsible for conditions on his or her rented property. But a tenant is not responsible for conditions on his or her property if the landlord has agreed or promised to repair a condition, either in the lease or elsewhere.
In addition to broader landlord-tenant laws of a state, there may be additional specific regulations creating landlord responsibilities, either at the state or municipal level.
Clear Landlord Liability for Carbon Monoxide Exposure
If the tenant’s carbon monoxide exposure is caused by the landlord’s failure to maintain or repair a furnace, pipe or other device in an area over which the landlord has control (a basement for example), then the landlord’s liability to the tenant is clear.
If the landlord agreed, either in the lease or through some other promise, to repair a stove, pipe or other device in the tenant’s rental unit, but did so in a negligent manner, causing the tenant to be exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide, the landlord’s liability is also pretty clear.
The same is true if a regulation or ordinance requires the landlord to inspect and/or repair devices or appliances that might expose a tenant to carbon monoxide, and the landlord fails to do so.
When Landlord Liability is Less Clear
Landlord liability is less clear when the carbon monoxide exposure is a result of a malfunction in an appliance or device on the tenant’s property, and the appliance was not defective when the tenancy began.
If no ordinance or regulation was violated and the tenant did not know about or inform the landlord of the malfunction, the landlord may not be found liable. For example, if the landlord properly inspected a gas stove before renting out the apartment, and the tenant unknowingly damages the stove, the landlord will not be held liable if the damaged stove is the source of the carbon monoxide exposure.
Additionally, if the stove was defective by design or because of a construction defect that the landlord could not have been aware of, the stove manufacture may be held liable to the tenant, but not the landlord.
Carbon Monoxide Detector Regulations
Many states have implemented (or are in the process of implementing) regulations requiring the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in either new homes, or all residential properties. Some regulations go even further and require regular inspection and repair of carbon monoxide devices.
For example, in California a landlord is responsible for installing a carbon monoxide detector outside of each bedroom in most apartment buildings. The landlord is also responsible for testing and repairing the device. A tenant is responsible for telling the landlord when the detector becomes inoperable. This law will come into effect in 2013.
Almost all of these state regulations do not specifically state the landlord can be held liable if he or she fails to abide by the requirements (Wisconsin is the exception). However, courts use regulations, ordinances and other legislation to determine a defendant’s duty in negligence cases.
In a state that has a carbon monoxide detector requirement, a court is likely to find that the landlord owed the tenant a duty to install a detector. If a tenant is exposed to carbon monoxide when he or she would have otherwise been alerted by a detector, the landlord will likely be found liable for negligence because he or she 1) owed a duty to install a detector, 2) breached that duty and 3) the breach caused the plaintiff to be exposed to carbon monoxide to a greater extent than if a detector had been installed.